The valley's high schools, especially the bigger ones, are generally pleased by improved graduation rates — above the state average — a trend they credit to intense academic help for at-risk students through all four years.

The valley's high schools, especially the bigger ones, are generally pleased by improved graduation rates — above the state average — a trend they credit to intense academic help for at-risk students through all four years.

The overall Jackson County graduation rate for 2012 was 65.99 percent — 1.2 percent below the state average. The rate measures the percentage of students who graduated within four years.

In new figures from the State Education Office, Ashland soared above the pack with a 91.2 percent graduation rate in 2011, compared to 88.66 percent the year before and 80.3 percent in 2009. Both whites and Hispanics had about the same rate — near 90 percent.

North Medford High School had a 69.34 percent graduation rate, a big leap above the 63.79 percent number posted the year before. The graduation rate for Hispanic students was 57.38 percent, while it was 73.15 percent for whites.

North Medford Principal Ron Beick said that in his four years at the helm, the school has achieved "a special proactive focus," with each at-risk student being shepherded by an adviser well before graduation, both academically and in their personal lives, if needed.

"The students have a much better connection over the four years. We support counseling issues at home if they're not attending or are struggling in school," said Beick. "Literature and math are vital in the world, and we support them early."

A similar story is told by Kevin Campbell, principal of South Medford High, which had a 3-point drop in its graduation rate — from 83.18 to 79.9 percent — a trend he attributed to moving to a new campus. The graduation rate still leaves South 13 points above the state average.

"It's the personal relationships of students with staff," said Campbell. "It's a large, comprehensive high school, and we break it into small learning communities where each teacher is empowered to take over. We're very stingy about every single kid."

South's graduation rate among Hispanics last year was 66.67 percent, while it was 83.18 percent for whites.

Critics of the graduation rates say the numbers of apparent dropouts are inflated because students who leave an area may be counted as non-graduates unless the school district can track them and prove they graduated elsewhere. Students earning GEDs also are not counted as graduates.

At Phoenix High, the graduation rate held steady at about 73 percent, 6 points above the state average. Teresa Sayre, director of instructional services, said it would be a lot more impressive if you go to state tables — www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?id=2644 — and factor out the alternative Armadillo Technical School, which has an 8 percent graduation rate among those who enter as ninth-graders. She attributed the low numbers at Armadillo to family transience, language barriers and the number of students graduating with GEDs.

"Without that, our dropout rate is 1.59 percent (per year), compared to the state average of 3 percent," said Sayre. "We're concentrating real hard on individual support for students ... every student has an adult advisor who helps them plan for four years."

Medford's alternative school, Cental Medford High School, recorded a graduation rate of 11 percent, up from 9.5 percent the previous year.

Superintendent Juli DiChiro of the Ashland School District echoed the theme, noting, "We focus on the long term, with all alternative programs located at the high school. They are part of it. It keeps them connected to the school. It's really hard to drop out here. Every student has an adult advisor from the staff, whom they meet with every other day for 45 minutes. They're all well known by someone. Any kid who shows any sign of dropping out, we intervene and help them graduate."

Central Point High School had a 66.91 percent graduation rate, down from 71.01 last year. Eagle Point High graduated 71.58 percent, down from 73.49 last year, but still four points above the state average. Rogue River High School had a 59.79 percent rate, far below last year's 74.74 and seven-plus points below the state average.

Tiny Butte Falls graduated 85.71 percent, down from 90.48, while smallish Pinehurst posted a glowing 100 percent graduation rate, compared to 50 percent last year. Prospect High School had a 42.86 percent rate compared to 83.33 percent last year.

A news release from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo said, "Student graduation rates are on the rise, and Oregon is seeing an all-time low in the number of students dropping out of high school."

Statewide, the high-school graduation rate rose 1 percentage point from last year. Males graduated at a 62.8 percent rate, nine points below females.

"All of the state's historically under-performing subgroups saw increases in their graduation rates, and in many cases their graduation rates grew faster than for the state overall," Castillo said, "indicating a slight closing of the graduation gap."

However, Castillo said, about half of ethnic minorities are not graduating on time (four-year programs).

"There are simply far too many kids not reaching this critical milestone," she said.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.